Southeast veterans center gets a new paint job

After 15 years in the Army, two degrees and more than a decade working at the same company, Peggye Lyons suddenly found herself jobless — and then homeless.

For four long, wintry months, Lyons lived in her car, stopping by a daytime center for homeless veterans to get food and take showers. In March, she was thrilled to have a roof over her head again when she received a bed at the Southeast Veterans Service Center.

Lyons, a former systems analyst, keeps a busy schedule. She is taking classes through the GI Bill toward a degree in Web design, and for hours each day she searches the Internet for jobs and an apartment of her own.

Thursday, Lyons took a break to do something else. Wielding a paintbrush and wearing a hairnet, she joined a crew of volunteers led by the nonprofit group Rebuilding Together and spent the morning fixing up the veterans center.

“Thank God I have a bed and a room and they feed me twice a day,” Lyons said as she helped a boisterous crew of eight repaint the walls of the center’s computer room. “We all have to give back.”

Rebuilding Together wrapped up a yearlong renovation project at the veterans center Thursday. The organization repairs low-income homes to make them safer and more accessible, and it chose the veterans center for similar repairs.

The center, operated by the nonprofit group Access Housing, is home to as many as 98 veterans through transitional housing and a program called Single Room Occupancy.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that more than 60,000 veterans are homeless any given night. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that about 13 percent of the adult homeless population are veterans. In 2009, President Obama announced a goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. So far, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of homeless veterans has decreased by 17 percent. The department plans to spend $5.8 billion this year on programs for homeless veterans.

Over several days of work since last summer, volunteers put down a new floor in one part of the Southeast Veterans Service Center, added corner guards in the narrow halls so that residents with wheelchairs and walkers won’t bump into sharp edges, and built raised gardening beds that disabled veterans can reach without bending to the ground. On Thursday, the volunteers planted lettuce and tomatoes that will one day make it to residents’ plates.

In the bathrooms, volunteers installed grab rails so that the residents, who range in age from 34 to 87, won’t fall. Janice Stango, executive director of the charity’s Washington branch, said that Rebuilding Together has installed 1,000 similar rails in D.C. homes annually for the past 30 years.

At the veterans center, Stango said, the need was apparent: Toilet paper holders and towel racks had been ripped out of the walls, apparently by veterans who tried to grab them for support. In addition to the sturdier grab rails, the volunteers replaced the missing toilet paper and towel holders.

“There’s a lot of things we had needed, and we just weren’t able to get them. Funding is slow sometimes,” said Dwayne Jones, the property manager.

This project is the latest Rebuilding Together effort funded by Sears’s Heroes at Home program, which has helped finance the organization’s repairs to 1,500 veterans’ houses since 2007. Thursday’s work included a ceremony honoring the corporate sponsor and a stop by representatives of Craftsman tools, a Sears brand, which is making a 20-city van tour to display its products in action at charitable building projects.

Jesse Everette, who manages housing at the center, said that even the little touches mean a lot to residents. “You'd be surprised. A coat of paint can make a world of difference to the veterans. Or a new carpet. It lifts their spirits.”

The center’s director, Gregory Crawford, added: “To know somebody in the community cares, it goes a long way in the atmosphere. You want to give back to the guys who’ve given the most.”

To Wayne McFadden, a former Marine who was homeless before moving into the center, the fresh paint did indeed lift his spirits — so much that he decided to help put it on the walls himself Thursday. Putting down his paintbrush, he said, “It’s nice to be remembered.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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